Mellie Dunham was so busy making snowshoes at his family company in Norway, Maine, that he let a letter from Henry Ford languish for several days.
It was the fall of 1925, and Ford offered Mellie Dunham fame (and some fortune). Ford invited him to his house in Dearborn, Mich.
Mellie didn’t just make snowshoes. He fiddled. And Henry Ford loved old-time fiddling. He played himself on a $75,000 Stradivarius, but he never got very good at it.
Mellie Dunham was born on July 29, 1853, to Christina Bent and Alanson Mellen Dunham. He was a bewhiskered 72-year-old when Ford sent him the invitation to fiddle at his home in Michigan. Ford knew about him because he’d won a statewide fiddling contest in Lewiston.
Mellie finally opened Ford’s letter, thinking it was an order for snowshoes. He then replied he couldn’t get away because he had to split kindling and patch the barn roof, plus do his regular work making snowshoes. But somehow the Norway Advertiser got hold of the letters and published them.
The national news media picked up the story about Henry Ford’s new favorite. Maine Gov. Ralph O. Brewster sent a press agent to Norway to persuade Mellie Dunham to accept the invitation.
So Mellie Dunham finally decided to go to Michigan.
Norway gave Mellie and his wife Emma (known as Gram) a huge sendoff. Schools and stores closed. The governor came. A parade of citizens, a big brass band and a police escort brought them to the train station, where Ford had sent a Pullman car. Reporters hung on Mellie Dunham’s folksy, backwoods comments and conveyed them to the public.
“I only went west once before, to Berlin, New Hampshire,” he said.
Another gem: “We’re carrying coffee along because we don’t know whether the coffee in Detroit will be good.”
Ford had invited 38 other fiddlers to play at his home, but none got as much attention as Mellie Dunham. He was celebrated at every stop along the way to Detroit.
On. Dec. 11, 1925, he played for a dancing party at Ford’s home. His repertoire included Pop Goes the Weasel, Old Zip Coon, Speed the Plough and Weevily Wheat. The dance was heavily publicized by reporters and photographers from Detroit, New York and Boston. The next day he gave a recital on Ford’s Stradivarius.
The Vaudeville Circuit
Mellie figured he should make hay while the sun shone. He and Emma then boarded a train for New York, where he signed a $500-a-week contract with the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit. “I came to make some money and I make no bones about it,” he said. The New York Times reported he made $20,000 on his tour.
Mellie Dunham and his Mountain Rangers then fiddled for the next 17 months, drawing large crowds throughout the United States and Canada. Some weeks he earned as much as $1,500. Other fiddlers – including President Calvin Coolidge’s 80-year-old uncle – seized the same opportunity. They challenged Mellie to a playdown and signed their own vaudeville contracts.
Back to Earth for Mellie Dunham
For a while, the nation was caught up in a country music craze. Ford encouraged local fiddling contests by offering a loving cup to the winner. Other kinds of old-time contests also became popular: marble shooting, wood chopping, horseshoe pitching. Merchants found a ready market for old-timey sheet music and songbooks, fiddles and old-fashioned guitars.
Then, just as suddenly, the craze died down. Mellie and Gram Dunham went home to Norway to make snowshoes. But not before the Maine State Legislature gave them three cheers and threw a dance in their honor. They dined with the governor.
Gram did make the New York Times in 1929 for bagging a deer — a good-sized buck — at the age of 71.
The Rest of the Story
Mellie Dunham died at the age of 78 on Sept. 28, 1931. In his obituary, the Times quoted a letter from a Maine forest ranger about Mellie Dunham’s snowshoes. “I do not like to have Mr. Dunham thought of as a sort of itinerant fiddler. He is a craftsman of the best type,” the ranger said.
The newspaper noted he was known throughout Maine as a master craftsman. He had made snowshoes for Commodore Robert E. Peary’s Arctic expedition. Peary said his snowshoes never failed him and brought presents for the Dunhams, including a narwhal tusk and a whale vertebrae.
You can listen to Mellie Dunham here.
With thanks to The Public Image of Henry Ford: An American Folk Hero and His Company by David Lanier Lewis. This story was updated in 2022.